Ingeborg Löfgren, PhD Student, Department of Literature. Uppsala University, Sweden
”Cavell and Asimov – The Real and the Imagined Human in Philosophy and Literature”
How can fictive stories about imagined futures help us understand our present real-life predicaments? Can a Science Fiction story about androids and machines bordering on, or having already achieved, life tell us anything true about what it is to be human and about human conditions in our real world?
The American philosopher Stanley Cavell is famous for often involving literature in his philosophizing, and for stressing the significance of literature to, and for, philosophy. Stories, and the telling of stories,
play an important role in Cavell’s work. Not only because he presents staggering philosophical readings of literary classics – as when he lets Shakespearian tragedies illuminate the meaning of skepticism – he also creates short fictive episodes of his own in order to elucidate the logics of different phenomena under investigation.
In both reading and creating stories the capacity to use what Cavell calls “projective imagination” is crucial. Projective imagination is furthermore essential to the logic and validity of what Cavell calls “arguments from the ordinary”. Thus projective imagination seems to be not only equally vital for the understanding of literature as for the understanding of philosophy, but also one senses that this mutual dependence on projective imagination signals an important site of contact between the two.
However, while imaginative stories may have a clarifying capacity, Cavell also warns us that imagination, and imagined scenarios, may lead us astray – into mystification and the mere illusion of sense. In this light, literature and fiction seem to approach philosophy Janus-faced. On the one hand, fictive, literary cases may shed light on our logical grammar and on our philosophical confusions. On the other hand they may obscure the logical grammar we are trying to unravel. How do we know when, and in what way, a made-up story holds for our world, our logic, our problems, and when it instead draws a distorted picture which rather fictionalizes ourpredicament, turning it into a fantasy? While the matter at first blush may seem to pose a question about Realism vs. Science Fiction or Fantasy (as literary genres), and while some passages in Cavell’s fourth part of Claim of Reason (1979) might indicate this as well, I would rather advocate that we turn to Narratology for guidance here. The role of Realism vs. different kinds of “Non-Realism” (in a literary sense) may to some extent play into the problematic, although, of greater importance for the matter at hand is the manner in which the stories are told.
By comparing a piece of Cavellian philosophical story-telling with a typical sci-fi short-story by Isaac Asimov, “The Bicentennial Man” (from The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories, 1976), focusing on the narrator’s relation to what is narrated, I suggest we can get a clearer picture of how and when imaginative fiction can both illuminate and cloud our philosophical efforts. What can Asimov’s story teach us about the criteria for being human? What does this fictive story about a robot who wanted to become a real human tell us about what real humans are? Can it teach us anything? And if it can, how can it do so? In what ways is this story similar to, and different from, Cavell’s philosophical thought experiments in which we are invited to imagine a man-made man in order to shed light on the criteria for humanity?